Emotional Enigma in the Sculpture of Michelangelo

Alison Cole

Michelangelo’s most well-known works exist on a colossal scale, from his formidable statue of David to the High Renaissance frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. Yet, his art could also be tender and lyrical, dwelling upon the inherent tensions of the human condition. Art Historian Alison Cole examines one such example, the Taddei Tondo (c.1504-1505) — the only marble sculpture by Michelangelo in a British collection. Cole provides a rich insight into the artist’s life, influences and unique approach to sculpture.

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This is Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo which he sculpted in about 1504-05, and it is, in fact, the only Michelangelo marble in Britain. It’s also one of his most lyrical works. We often think of Michelangelo as rather terrifying with the Sistine ceiling frescoes and the Last Judgement. But this shows a different side of his character. Rarely has an image of the Madonna and Child packed such an emotional punch.

Michelangelo was, of course, one of the most famous artists of the Italian Renaissance. He was born in Florence of an aristocratic family that had fallen on hard times. He trained as a painter to begin with, but he discovered sculpture in the garden of Lorenzo de’ Medici. He always thought of himself as a sculptor; that medium most expressed what he was trying to do.

The Tondo was made in between his colossal David statue and the Sistine ceiling frescoes. He was about 30 when he made it. It’s called after the patron Taddeo Taddei who acquired it, and the ‘tondo’ refers to its round shape. It’s from the Italian word ‘rotondo’.

Tondos were incredibly fashionable in Florence in the 15th century and early 16th century. Every palace wanted to have one, and they served a decorative, architectural and a devotional purpose. At the same time Michelangelo was working on other tondos. He made three in all.

In the case of all them, the influence is clearly Leonardo who had been taking Florence by storm with his new approach for the Madonna and Child theme. What fascinated Michelangelo about Leonardo’s compositions was this pyramid structure and also the play of light and shade. Leonardo created this mysterious chiaroscuro, this light/dark smoky shadows which give his characters this enigmatic feeling. And Michelangelo, remarkably, in stone has created the same play of light and shadows.

It tells a story of when the Madonna, the Child and St Joseph were on the way back from the Flight into Egypt. They met the infant St John in the desert. What Michelangelo has done is inject his own dramatic interpretation into this very familiar narrative.  So, we have John, the shadowy figure on the left who is stretching out his arms and frightening the child with a bird, which is usually identified as a goldfinch which is a symbol of Christ’s future sacrifice. So here, unusually, we have the Child seeming to flee from his future. What Michelangelo has very cleverly done is create two forces in this sculptural space. One pulls the figures apart, and then the other pulls them together. So, you’ve got this fear and alarm and then this attraction and fascination.

The work is believed to be unfinished because Michelangelo was hastily summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II to do his tomb. It is not unusual for Michelangelo to leave his works unfinished. In fact, it is surprisingly usual. He left 26 out of his 43 marbles unfinished. What we have is various stages of completion which are beautifully expressed by the three figures.

The roughed-out figure of St John where his features are hardly visible. Then you have the Virgin. Her head is very solidly modelled and gives a sense of three dimensions and a turning in the space. And then you have the Christ child with this wonderful smooth flesh, the modelling of every sort of muscle and sinew. Even though it was unfinished, it was widely regarded in its time.

At the same time as he was sculpting the tondo he was working on his fresco The Battle of Cascina. Soldiers in the nude are surprised by an attack and their bodies show the different conflicting emotions as they twist and turn. You get a feeling that these ideas bled into this composition as well. Because here we have Christ half expressing fear, and half turning back.

The British Museum has one of these drawings that are assumed to be studies for The Battle. And on the reverse is a drawing with several infants in different poses and these have been very closely identified with the Taddei Tondo. What the drawing shows is that Michelangelo was originally envisaging a much more dramatic pose for the St John figure, having him in a very menacing, threatening pose, bending over like a Bacchanalian infant expressive of erotic love, panicked terror, which was something he personally identified with. He was remarkably prone to panic himself.

You get the sense with Michelangelo’s Madonna and Childs’ had a very personal meaning for him. He lost his mother at the age of 6 and you feel that there’s a remoteness in the maternal presence and a grandeur and an idealisation as well.

For me the Tondo is one of the most beautiful and mysterious works of art. It has a poignancy. It’s a moment arrested. In that moment, you’re arrested too. And that’s what I love about it. It’s not just another ‘Madonna and Child’. It’s got all the personal, the artistic tension, the ambition and this sense of the future that Michelangelo always brings to his works.

With thanks to

The National Gallery

The Royal Academy of Arts



Getty Images

Jörg Bittner Unna

Museo Nazionale del Bargello


The British Museum

The Galleria dell’Accademia

The Kimbell Art Museum

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The National Gallery of Art, Washington

The Royal Academy of Arts, London

The Uffizi Gallery

The Victoria and Albert Museum

The Wellcome Collection



Audio Network


Full list of images shown: 

‘Taddei Tondo’

(The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John)

Michelangelo, c.1504-1505

©Royal Academy of Arts, London.

Photographer: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd


The Last Judgement

Michelangelo, 1536-1541

Sistine Chapel, Rome


Daniele da Volterra

Michelangelo, c.1544

The Metropolitan Museum of Art


View of Florence from the South West

Francesco Rosselli, c.1495

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London



The Torment of Saint Anthony

Michelangelo, c.1487-88

The Kimbell Art Museum AP 2009.01


Madonna della Melagrana

Boticelli, 1487

The Uffizi Gallery

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)



L’Alba Madonna

Raphael, c.1510

The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC 1937.1.24


‘Pitti Tondo’

(The Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist)

Michelangelo, c.1503-05

Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence


Doni Tondo

Michelangelo, 1506-08

The Uffizi Gallery


Virgin of the Rocks

Leonardo da Vinci


The National Gallery NG1093

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


Madonna del Cardellino

Raphael, 1505-1506

The Uffizi Gallery


Tomb of Pope Julius II, San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome

Michelangelo, 1545


Atlas Slave

Michelangelo, c.1525-30

Galleria dell’Accademia

(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)



Awakening Slave

Michelangelo, c.1525-30

Galleria dell’Accademia


The Battle of Cascina

Luigi Schiavonetti after Michelangelo, 1808

The Wellcome Collection

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


Eight studies of children

Michelangelo, 1503-04

The British Museum 1887,0502.117



Michelangelo, 1498–1499

Photograph © Stanislav Traykov, 2008

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